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It’s been 50 years since Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council asked the church where it was going. The question remains (ANSA/AFP)

It’s been 50 years since Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council asked the church where it was going. The question remains


Michael W. Higgins

Quo vadis, Catholicism? Add to ...

Quo Vadis – Where are you going? – is the title of Polish Nobel laureate Henryk Sienkiewicz’s celebrated novel set against the backdrop of Nero’s Rome. The phrase is drawn from an apocryphal source and refers to St. Peter’s question to the risen Jesus as Peter flees persecution and certain martyrdom.

Thursday marks the 50th anniversary of the official opening of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli), and it is not unreasonable for non-Roman Catholic friends and critics alike to pose the same question to the postconciliar Roman Catholic Church. Where are you going?

If only we knew.

The council itself was an extraordinary assembly of bishops convoked by John XXIII to address what he clearly saw as a spiritual and institutional torpor afflicting the church. Wearied by centuries of resistance to modernity – in all its manifestations – fearful and dismissive of everything it judged secular, the church cried out for renewal. John XXIII heard that call, braved incomprehension and opposition in his own management team (the Roman Curia) and succeeded in ushering in a new era for Catholicism.

This ecumenical council was different: There was no heresy that needed to be addressed, no schism to beavoided, no doctrine to be proclaimed. It was all about renewal in the church, and in keeping with the personality of the pope, the council would approach the world with openness, cordiality and humility. Deicide, the noxious notion that the Jews killed Christ, would be vigorously repudiated. Relations with non-Catholic Christians would become a key conciliar priority. Human dignity and religious freedom would be embraced. And those of other faiths (or no faith at all) would be seen as brothers and sisters in a common quest for transcendent meaning, rather than as fodder for anathema.

Fifty years later, the landscape is quite different. Gone is the exuberance of the early days after the Second Vatican Council, replaced by a deep anxiety over the parlous state of contemporary Catholicism. Many Catholics now view the legacy of the council as a fractious inheritance: Where once there was theological unity, even uniformity, now there is plurality and division. Where once the liturgy of the church was distinguished by its sublimity of cadence and reverence of posture, it has become a wild hodgepodge of capricious rubrics and inconstant celebrants. Where once the Catholic identity was sure, fixed and organic, its teaching is in tatters, its canons and sanctions porous, its theologians a parallel teaching authority to the bishops.

Although this melancholy diagnosis is far off the mark, the reasons for its currency among many Catholics can be found in their quite legitimate worry over the future of the church. That level of worry is a determinative feature of the pontificate of Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), himself a theological expert at the council.

This is why the 50th anniversary enjoys at best an ambivalence of attitude and feeling in many church circles. No pope or bishop will ever gainsay the authority of a council and its teachings, but the interpretation and application of those teachings has become a controverted matter. What constitutes a faithful reading of a text or document, what model or synthesis is preferable when seeking to articulate the faith in a new time, how one remains connected to and nurtured by the past but open and curious about challenges and perspective hitherto unknown – these are the questions that will increasingly preoccupy the energies of the thinkers and leaders of the church for the next 50 years.

John XXIII – beatified and a candidate for sainthood – called for a “new Pentecost” in the church. That call is not for the timid and tepid; it will not be heard by those intent on recreating a Catholic ghetto, reducing a once global communion to the status of an inward-looking sect. The Johannine spark needs to be rekindled.

Then and only then can we truly answer the question “Where are you going?”

Michael W. Higgins is co-editor of the just-published Vatican Council II: the Universal Call to Holiness.

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